September 05, 2008

Confession of a Murderer

On the banks of the seine, a group of Russian emigres meet. Amongst them is a German who speaks Russian- our narrator. The rest of them sit around in the loneliness of exile with their small glasses of liquor. The cafe we learn later is transplanted directly from its original abode in Odessa- everyone in the room has a past- these are not aristocrats but the servants of the Tsarist state. Alone amongst them is the object of the fascination of our visiting German, a Russian with a queer smile and a grim face- who we later learn is called Golubchik and considers himself both a murderer and a good man. The novel plays with our beliefs about the truth- for which you need to read to the end- and also with our notion of morality. I do not want to discuss the problems of truth here- I don't think I could without giving away the plot- but there is something said here about the nature of what it is to be good that is important. Something that we need to understand about this 'good' murderer, this paragon of the bloody- and his haunted imagination.

This is the story of a haunted imagination, a character that might easily be described as a haunted imagination. Golubchik is an illegitimate son- the son of a Russian Prince, the Prince Krapotkin, who has harboured since his youth anger and ambition fused together in a poisonous passion to reintroduce him to his natural father. We know that Prince Krapatkin hardly recognises the stripling lad- granting him a snuff box- whereas he does recognise his own legitimate son- the young Prince. The young Prince and Golubchik go through life in a curious parallel trajectory. Golubchik becomes a secret policeman- a member of the Okhrana. The young Prince consorts with revolutionaries- but everything that Golubchik so supposedly the member of the most feared caste in Tsarist Russia does rebounds against the formidable reputation and power of Krapotkin, a prince with the ear of the Tsar and powers boundless in the land of Russia. Both are stalked by a sinister charming Hungarian called Lakatos.

And so we go through this fearful dance- feudal right versus totalitarian secrecy. In a sense this is a commentary upon the Russian Tsarist state- its a commentary upon the curious land where the Holy Father ruled his subjects through the apparatus of a secret state, the discipline of a state church and the awe of a divine monarchy. But it goes further than this- for it goes to the roots of morality. Golubchik says that he is a good man- what he means is that he has taken no action that was not neccessitated. He did what he did because he had to do it. That 'goodness' means that he can escape the way that he has used his power. If he had been born in a higher station, if he had been born to a greater destiny, or even if he had not had the luck to join the security services, he would have been fine. He transfers his evil deeds to the Mephistocles of the tale- the Hungarian- but the tale undercuts this brutally and dramatically.

Start with his conversations with Lakatos- he converses with Golubchik but Roth is keen to demonstrate to us that though he influences and proffers options to Golubchik, he never forces him to do anything. The moment I remember is that Lakatos gets arrested as Golubchik gets onto a train- and rather than stay on the train- Golubchik gets off it. Every time he gets off the train. Every time he chooses to perform an immoral act. So he falls in love with his half brother's model-girlfriend- he chooses to impersonate a Prince Krapotkin. He chooses all the way through and his actions are the product of his moral decisions. Furthermore he himself is the product of his decisions. There is no way to separate his situation from his person- he is a Russian of a certain class- he is his dreams, his haunted thoughts. To claim that he can be exonnerated because his circumstances would be fine if you could separate the person from the personal history- but you cannot. He is his history- and he and his history are judged and found in this tale wanting.

This tale is written beautifully, translated impeccably, and the atmosphere it produces is akin as many recognise to that produced by Dosteovsky or Kafka- the simularity is because of the similar theme. Like Dosteovsky we are dealing with the struggles of the individual soul- the moral person in modern society. Like Kafka we are dealing with those struggles within a system- not the system of the Trial's bureacratic nightmare- but the system of a self created hell. What Roth proffers is a Protestant novel in a world without God. A novel about guilt and sin in a world where there is no escape- where the mutilated corpse of the victim knocks at the door of the bar in which you are sitting- a world in a which all roads lead back to the conception of your own guilt.